There and back again – a mire’s tale

In a remote country lived a rich mire species community. But that was once upon a time, when Finland was a land of mires. Nowadays, only fragmented pieces are left in the southern region, while large natural mires can still be found in Lapland. Nevertheless, only one third of historical levels remain. Most mireswere dried due to farming and forestry. Ditches were dug to gather water from ca. 6 million hectares of mires. This affected the hydrology and further the ecology of these wet ecosystems. Several plant and animal species are adapted to mires, and have thus suffered from habitat loss and fragmentation. For example, forest grouse and bean geese (Anser fabalis) utilize mires during their breeding period. Due to ditching, mires stop producing their ecosystem services, because berry production and game bird populations (these are cultural and provisioning ecosystem services), decrease, and thus the recreational values of the areas lessen.

Wetland ecology group_University of Helsinki_Mire_Cloudberry

Cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus) grows on mires and benefits from restoration activities.

Finland has about 10 million hectares of dried mires, more than half of which have been utilized by forestry. However, about a fifth of this area does not produce wood well enough for it to be profitable. After several centuries of mire destruction,  a change is now in the air. Finnish mires are being restored with increasing effort. For example, in 2017 Metsähallitus (the Park and Forest Service) began an EU-funded project called Hydrology LIFE. The project aims to safeguard not just mires, but also small water bodies and important bird lakes in 103 Natura 2000 areas. The project restores and protects mires.

Wetland ecology group_University of Helsinki_duck_mire_restoration_hydrology

Mire hydrology can be restored by blocking ditches.

Hydrology is the most important issue to consider when restoring a mire. Blocking ditches leads to changes in water balance, and eventually to active peat formation, which is basically the definition of a mire. After the ditches are blocked, water levels normally rise rapidly to correspond with the natural situation. However, actual peatland processes return at a much slower speed. Forest vegetation is slowly replaced by mire vegetation, starting from the ditches. The processes take a long time, so whether or not the original mire ecosystem returns is yet to be seen. It is also possible that we are actually just creating new mire types.

Wetland ecology group_University of Helsinki_Elimyssalo_mire_peatland_forest reindeer

Elimyssalo nature conservation area in Eastern Finland consists of various peatland types. The area is an important calving place for wild forest reindeer (Rangifer tarandus fennicus).

Helping forest grouse

Wetland ecology group_University of Helsinki_hazel grouse

Forest grouse utilize peatland-forest ecotones. The hazel grouse (Tetrastes bonasia) population in Finland has suffered from peatland loss.

Peatland-forest ecotones are key environments for forest grouse, but unfortunately these areas are becoming very rare. The willow ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus) has suffered from mire fragmentation in Finland. Ptarmigan habitats are fragmented especially in Southern Finland, and thus there are small populations living far from each other. Luckily, local people are usually interested in peatland restoration that helps species such as the willow ptarmigan. Several good examples exist of how ptarmigans have accepted restored peatlands. The Finnish Association for Nature Conservation has a project “SuoMaa”, which began in 2016, and targets protecting and restoring taiga nature. One of the aims is to restore peatlands to support and enlarge a ptarmigan breeding peatland network and create connections between strong and threatened populations.

 

Read more

Hydrologia-Life

Suomen metsäkanalintukantojen hoitosuunnitelma

Restoration of peatlands, Luke

 

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Hawks for hunting

Falconry is a centuries-old form of hunting in numerous countries around the world. It is considered an integral aspect of many cultures, and was therefore added to the UNESCO Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage as a living human heritage element in 2010.

Falconry involves a trained bird of prey that is instructed by a falconer to hunt its natural prey species. The birds can be falcons, hawks, or eagles: even a few owl species have successfully been used. The falconer releases his bird once he has seen a potential prey animal. The bird flies after the prey, and pins it to the ground. The falconer follows, kills the prey, and gives the hawk a compensatory food reward. Falconry can be practiced during regular hunting seasons.

Wetland ecology group_Stella Thompson_University of Helsinki_falconry

Several cultures utilize birds of prey for hunting. Lotta the goshawk hunts in Finland. ©Markku Kallinen

Falconry is practiced in many Arab nations, European countries (e.g. Great Britain and the Czech Republic), and in most US states, to name a few examples. The International Association for Falconry (IAF) carefully regulates falconry. The association’s objective is to advance the protection and conservation of birds of prey through falconry and awareness raising.

Despite conservation efforts, many people harbor negative feelings towards falconry. And true problems do exist; certain countries allow the crossbreeding of species. If hybrid hunting hawks manage to escape from captivity, they can weaken the genetic purity of local birds. Alien species are also used in certain areas. For example, Britain has imported Harris’s hawks (Parabuteo unicinctus) into the country for pheasant hunting, but escapees have been reported nesting in the wild. The ethics behind captive wild bird species and breeding them in captivity also remains an issue. On the other hand, falconry has also managed to lessen prejudices that people have harbored against birds of prey in many countries, and falconry organizations further the conservation of both birds of prey and other bird species by e.g. raising awareness and campaigning against illegal animal trafficking.

At one time, falconry was also popular in Finland, where the goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) was the bird of prey most used. Falconry is technically legal according to Finnish hunting legislation, but actually obtaining a hunting hawk is not easy in practice. Goshawks are protected in the country, so a native bird cannot be captured. Therefore a bird must be brought in from abroad. The bird cannot be an alien species, and individuals brought in must also be sterile, as goshawks in other countries are of different populations than in Finland.

Wetland ecology group_Stella Thompson_University of Helsinki_falconry

Markku and Lotta mainly hunt mountain hare. ©Pia Kallinen

However, Finland certifiably has one pair of hunting goshawk and falconer. Markku Kallinen and Lotta the goshawk uphold an old hunting tradition that disappeared during the 1960s. Markku and Lotta mainly hunt mountain hare (Lepus timidus). See a video of Lotta feeding, filmed by Pia Kallinen.

Lotta’s activities can be followed (in Finnish) at https://www.facebook.com/haukkametsastys/

Curious Finnish fireman rings 16 000 goldeneyes and Danish farmer rings 12 000 starlings – the most amazing examples of citizen science

 

Pentti Runko ringing a small goldeneye duckling.

While scientist struggle with short-term funding periods, the curiosity for nature that the general public shows, can unearth mechanisms that can only be found with long-term datasets. The persistent and systematic observations made by nature enthusts enables research about climate change or life history traits over several generations. Both are issues that require long-term research – and a lot of time and effort. Below are some examples of remarkable work done by citizen scientists curious about nature.

16 000 ringed goldeneyes have passed through the hands of a Finnish fireman

Finnish fireman Pentti Runko has collected systematic data of goldeneyes for several scientific studies. After starting his work in 1984, by 2017 Runko has ringed an amazing 16 000 goldeneyes and checked several hundreds of nest boxes every year.

In a recently published study, the authors utilized data concerning 14 000 of these goldeneyes ringed by Runko between the years 1984-2014. Among these goldeneyes were 141 females that were ringed as ducklings and recaptured later in the area. Based on these data it was possible to follow the recruit females’ lives from hatching to breeding. Thus the early life circumstances of these females are known, and the circumstances can be used to study their effects later on in life. In some cases early life circumstances have severe results on subsequent life, for example on breeding performance (duckling video).

Goldeneyes lay eggs in the nest boxes (video), which Runko checks for eggs several time during the season, to evaluate the hatching dates (video), to catch females and to ring ducklings.

The study was able to show deviations between individuals during the first breeding years and how circumstances during early life affected the breeding statistics of these females. Most females began breeding at the age of 2, but 44% delayed the start of breeding. Winter severity of the first two years affected the timing of breeding, but did not affect which year the females began breeding. As a conclusion, it appears that certain traits buffer the effects that the severity of the first weeks have, so the breeding parameters of females are not affected.  The research also showed that first-time breeders tend to begin breeding later than the yearly specific averages.

After ringing ducklings get back to the nest box.

The authors of another study used a set of 405 females and their offspring’s ringed by Runko, and found that the females’ condition matters when it comes to breeding success. Older, early-nesting females with good body condition and larger broods were able to produce more female recruits for the local population. The later the females bred, the less recruits they produced. The study also showed that females tend to adjust their breeding according to the ice-out dates of lakes. However, differences were observed between the flexibility of the females. Because early-breeding goldeneyes succeed better, the authors conclude that selection favours early-breeding individuals.

The lives and breeding habits of goldeneye females are closely followed at Maaninka (video).

Climate change effects can also be observed from goldeneye phenology. Runko showed that during the last 30 years goldeneyes have advanced their egg-laying dates by 12 days.

45 years of starling surveys in a farmer’s backyard reveal climate warming

Starlings are becoming scarce in Europe.

The Danish Ornithological Society Journal recently published a study that utilized data gathered by a Danish farmer, who ringed starlings for 45 years. Dairy farmer Peder V. Thellesen ringed ca. 12 000 starlings nesting in 27 nest boxes, and measured their phenology systematically. The data showed that during the study period starlings advanced their egg-laying dates by more than 9 days. This advance was observed in both first and second clutches. The result reflects the increase in April temperatures. Another important observation was that while no change was observed in clutch size and hatching rate, nest box occupancy has fallen dramatically in recent years. Starlings used to be common in Europe, but now they have decreased widely in Europe, also in Denmark. Changes in agricultural land use, especially decreased cattle grazing, are suspected as one example affecting starling populations. Loss of cattle-grazed land means less insect-rich foraging lands for the birds.

 

Read more:

Fox, T. and Heldbjerg, H. 2017. Ornithology: Danish dairy farmer delivers data coup. Nature.

Pöysä, H., Clark, R. G., Paasivaara, A. and Runko, P. 2017. Do environmental conditions experienced in early life affect recruitment age and performance at first breeding in common goldeneye females? Journal of Avian Biology.

Clark, R. G., Pöysä, H., Runko, P. and Paasivaara, A. 2014. Spring phenology and timing of breeding in short-distance migrant birds: phenotypic responses and offspring recruitment patterns in common goldeneyes. Journal of Avian Biology.

Kari S. Maattinen Youtube videos about goldeneyes

Thellesen, P.V. Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris clutch size, brood size and timing of breeding during 1971-2015 in Southwest Jutland, Denmark. The Danish Ornithological Society Journal.

YLE 2016: Lintuharrastaja on uhrannut kevätlomansa telkänpoikasille jo 30 vuoden ajan – “Se voisi olla Suomen kansallislintu”. In Finnish.

YLE 2013: Linnut pesivät nyt viikkoja aikaisemmin kuin 1980-luvulla

 

A requiem for birds killed by alien predators

A small pond in the Finnish countryside is filled with squeaking, when several goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) and wigeon (Mareca penelope) broods are foraging. Suddenly a goldeneye hen alerts and flies cackling across the pond. The figure of an American mink (Neovison vison) appears on the water surface, which leads to an emergency escape of the duck broods. The American mink is an efficient predator, which does not belong in Finnish nature. Nonetheless it has already occupied the whole country. Alien species in Finland and other countries are a serious threat to birds.

Wetland ecology group_University of Helsinki_duck_goldeneye_wigeon_wetland

Duck broods escape after a watchful goldeneye female alerts after spotting an American mink.

A fur farming runaway became a nuisance

The American mink is, as its name reveals, an American species, which was brought to North Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. Minks escaped from farms and were successful in Europe. They were also introduced to nature on the Russian side. Rapidly American minks occupied all of Fennoscandia.

The American mink utilizes various wetlands, lakes and archipelagos, where it predates birds and limits their populations. Minks don’t only eat birds, but also their eggs. The American mink is especially harmful in Fennoscandian archipelagos, because birds are not adapted to such predators. Certain bird species, such as the black guillemot (Cepphus grylle), are especially threatened by mink predation. Traditionally Fennoscandia has not had such predators. The European mink (Mustela lutreola), which is now extinct from many of its historical areas, did not occupy the archipelago in the same way as its American cousin does.

Wetland ecology group_University of Helsinki_American mink_alien predator_wetland

The American mink is currently a common wetland species in Fennoscandia.

Raccoon dog ended up on EU’s black list

The raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides) is an Asian species that was introduced to the European parts of the Soviet Union to be hunted for its fur. From the Soviet the raccoon dogs spread west. Soon raccoon dogs occupied all of Finland, and are now also reaching Sweden. Currently Finnish hunters are working to prevent raccoon dogs from going over the Swedish border. The raccoon dog was recently classified as an invasive alien species by the European Union. One reason for this is its influence on birds.

Wetland ecology group_University of Helsinki_supikoira_raccoon dog_vieraslaji

Raccoon dog destroys an artificial duck nest. Game camera photo.

Research conducted at the Helsinki University shows that raccoon dog density and predation pressure on artificial nests correlates on wetlands. Other studies have found raccoon dogs to destroy both pheasant and duck nests. Thus raccoon dog removal around wetlands is an important way to protect birds.

And then there were no Stephens Island wrens left

A cat named Tibbles carried little birds to a light house yard on an island of New Zealand in the late 1800s. The birds were Stephens Island wrens (Xenicus lyalli). The cat hunted at least 15, after which apparently none were left. Rats and cats might already have killed the wren populations from the other islands. The Stephens Island wren is not the only victim of cats. Australian researchers have counted that domestic cats have killed at least 20 native species. In the USA cats are estimated to kill 3,7 milliard (3.7 billion) birds annually. Most birds are killed by unowned cats. Cats therefore appear to kill more birds than any other anthropogenic cause in the USA. Worldwide cats have killed 33 animal species to extinction.

Wetland ecology group_University of Helsinki_cat_alien predator_wetland

A cat stalking a duck brood in a wetland. In this case cutting the vegetation saved the brood.

The raccoon is occupying Europe

In addition to the American mink, the raccoon (Procyon lotor) has also arrived in Europe from North America. The raccoon was also brought Europe to be farmed for its fur. This highly adaptable animal has succeeded well in Europe, and is now common for example in Germany and France. The population size in Germany is already evaluated at over a million. Raccoons are spreading north, and are currently settled in Denmark and individuals have also been found in Sweden. Compared to raccoon dogs, raccoons also live successfully in cities. But just like raccoon dogs, raccoons are also well adapted to the wetland environment, and are thus harmful to waterbirds.

Raccoons reproduce effectively, and therefore their extirpation is impossible once a population has been established. This is why efforts need to be focused on stopping the species from spreading. The raccoon is classified as an invasive alien species in the EU, so farming them or having one as a pet is illegal.

Read more:

Väänänen, V.-M. 2007: The effect of raccoon dog Nyctereutes procyonoides removal on waterbird breeding success. Suomen Riista (PDF)

PHYS.ORG 29.1. 2014: Cats in US kill billions of birds, mammals, study finds

Loss, S.R. et al. 2013: The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States. Nature Communications

Marra, P. & Santella C. 2017. Cat Wars. The Obituary of the Stephens Island Wren

Spiegel Online 3.8.2012. Germany Overrun by Hordes of Masked Omnivores

NOBANIS Invasive Alien fact sheets, Raccoon (PDF)

Increased geese populations occupy pastures and city lawns in Fennoscandia

Many geese populations in Fennoscandia are increasing rapidly, and geese have become more visible in human-inhabited landscapes. Currently geese utilize agricultural lands and even urban lawns. High geese brood densities have a significant impact on their environments due to increasing grazing pressure.

Greylag geese graze on pastures and hay lands, preferring short vegetation to high ones. Geese grazing also keeps vegetation short. Geese trimming a lawn in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland.

Geese broods prefer pastures near shores

A newly published Swedish study revealed that greylag geese broods are rather picky when selecting farmland fields for grazing. The most used fields were pasturelands near water. Goslings preferred shorter vegetation, assumingly due to its higher quality and the open landscape views in case of predators. Grazing geese also keep the vegetation short.

Broods tend to prefer grazing areas near shores, from where they can easily reach the safety of water when threatened. Grazing geese broods are suggested to pose a fairly small risk of agricultural conflicts due to their preference for near-shore pastures (instead of crop fields for example). However, extremely high grazing pressure by geese can reduce plant biomass, thus affecting livestock grazing. In arctic areas, such as Greenland and Svalbard, geese grazing is observed to be the reason for decreased hay and decreased seed counts in soil.

In contrast to broods that prefer near-shore areas, non-breeding geese can cause conflicts with agriculture, due to their grazing in crop fields. Non-breeding birds that are able to fly can utilize areas further from water, and according to a Swedish study, they also graze also on crop and vegetable fields in addition to pastures. Large flocks preferred typically open and flat with no or few trees or shrubs.

The two differing patterns shown by broods and adults means that geese managers should consider the two behavioural strategies when planning geese management.

Barnacle geese grazing among Helsinki University research cattle. Breeding geese flocks have e.g. destroyed some the university’s research fields and caused high expenses.

City geese have found Helsinki’s shore lawns

The barnacle goose is a fairly new species in Helsinki. The species tends to breed in remote arctic areas, but after geese were released from the local zoo in the late 1980s, geese began breeding on the islands and islets of the Helsinki archipelago. The released geese are assumed to have returned to breed, and brought their offspring and other geese with them. Since then the goose population has been growing and occupying shore areas from the islands and mainland. Grazing geese are nowadays a visible element in the city of Helsinki, competing over space with citizens.

Geese densities are rather high on Helsinki shore lawns, where non-flying broods gather to graze. In August juvenile birds can move further from the shoreline to feed. The best seashore lawns tempt dozens of broods. In urban areas lawns are usually a nice buffet table for the geese: they typically prefer plant species used in lawns, and mowing sustains fresh vegetation. Compared to natural lawns, urban lawns can be better for broods.

This geese enclosure has very limited plant diversity, but Potentilla species not preferred by geese are flourishing.

 

However, geese grazing is affecting plant diversity by decreasing it. Few plant species tend to dominate in the grazed areas, while  the diversity and coverage of species is more balanced in areas with no geese grazing. Good quality lawns benefit broods, because they don’t need to move long distances while grazing. Geese population growth in the Helsinki area has been refracting after reaching ca. 1300 breeding pairs, and one reason is thought to be the limitation of good feeding habitats for broods. Geese already use almost all possible lawns in Helsinki. During dry summers with poor lawn growth geese may be greatly food-limited, which is reflected in the population size. Thus it seems that the barnacle goose population in Helsinki has reached its carrying capacity.

In the Helsinki archipelago barnacle geese nest commonly on rocky islands and islets, where food availability is highly limited. Well-managed city lawns are thus tempting for the broods.

Methods for preventing geese grazing were measured in Helsinki. One possibility is to use plant species that geese don’t prefer, instead of the current species mix that seems to be especially tempting for geese. Another possibility is to fence off areas were geese are not welcome. Goslings cannot fly, and thus cannot reach fenced areas, and they also avoid areas where they have limited visual contact to water.

 

Read more:

Olsson et al. 2017: Field preference of Greylag geese Anser anser during the breeding season. European Journal of Wildlife Research

Barnacle goose population declined in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area. 2016. Environment.fi

Barnacle goose population remains unchanged despite a good breeding year. 2013. Environment.fi

Niemi et al. 2007: Valkoposkihanhi pääkaupunkiseudulla. Suomen Ympäristö.

Valkoposkihanhien seuranta. 2016. Ymparisto.fi.

Asymmetrical competition in boreal lakes

Fish inhabit boreal lakes throughout the year and aquatic invertebrates living in the same lakes belong on the menu of several fish species. Ducks also utilize these same invertebrates for half the year. Even ducks that usually eat plants consume invertebrates; especially females preparing to lay eggs and small ducklings need protein in their diet. Boreal lakes are typically barren and invertebrate-poor. A newly published review article emphasizes the need to carefully deliberate when considering the introduction of fish in wetlands where they do not originally belong or that are established specifically for ducks.

Fish modify the structure of aquatic invertebrate communities, and thus the structure, abundance and diversity of invertebrate communities differ between lakes with and without fish. Fish predate especially large invertebrates that typically are the top predators of invertebrate communities. Therefore the community structure is skewed towards smaller species in lakes with fish.

Invertebrates living among vegetation are better protected from fish predation and thus predation is higher in open water. This means that fish compete especially with those duck species that forage in the open water (e.g. teal), while species foraging among vegetation are less affected (e.g. mallard).

The review article clearly showed that the food competition caused by fish is harmful for breeding ducks. However, the situation is not always clear, because fish and duck abundances are typically limited by the same environmental key factors such as lake productivity. Thus both ducks and fish can be abundant in lakes rich in invertebrate and vegetative food material. But this competitive set-up is emphasized in barren lakes.

Common goldeneye broods prefer fishless lakes. © Sari Holopainen

Common goldeneye broods prefer fishless lakes. © Sari Holopainen

Researchers in Finland introduced fish to lakes that had become fishless due to acidification. Monitoring showed that the lake use by common goldeneye broods declined after these introductions. Pairs on the other hand continued using the lakes as before. The difference is suggested to be caused by the foraging manners of ducks at different life stages. Adult ducks find their food from the lake benthos, while ducklings and fish concentrate on competing over nektonic invertebrates. Competition theory is also supported by other studies: ducklings need to use more time foraging in lakes with fish, and still seem to grow slower than in fishless lakes.

The fish experiment was performed in the opposite way in Sweden, where fish were eradicated from certain lakes. Researchers found that all invertebrate groups became more abundant and goldeneye brood numbers increased.

In Finland lakes have been recovering from acidification and this has positively reflected to fish populations. The recovery of fish might affect the breeding success of ducks in boreal lakes, especially concerning breeding goldeneyes.

The competition between fish and ducks is asymmetric in the sense that fish will affect ducks, but ducks do not affect fish. Fish are present in the lakes year-round and if times are thin, the fish just grow slower. They also affect the invertebrate populations of lakes. Ducklings will also grow slower in bad times, but their mortality increases rapidly if food becomes scarce. The effect of ducks on invertebrates is also milder. Thus fish should not be introduced to wetlands established especially for ducks.

Read more:

Nummi, P., Väänänen, V.-M., Holopainen S. & Pöysä H. 2016. Duck–fish competition in boreal lakes – a review. – Ornis Fennica 93: 67-76.

Gunnarsson, G., Elmberg, J., Sjöberg, K., Pöysä, H. & Nummi, P. 2006. Experimental evidence for density-dependent survival in mallard (Anas platychynchos) ducklings. — Oecologia 149: 203-213

Nummi, P., Väänänen, V-M., Rask, M., Nyberg, K. & Taskinen, K. 2012.  Competitive effects of fish in structurally simple habitats: perch, invertebrates, and goldeneye in small boreal lakes. — Aquatic Sciences 74: 343-350.